Before my second child was born, another parent in our co-op preschool said that when one has a second child, nap schedules go out the window. But does it have to be that way? I wondered. Everyone knows it: Sleep is essential for health — and learning. But when there’s a baby or toddler in the house in addition to a preschool- or school-age child, can you balance the school schedule and nap needs of everyone in the family? I set out to find out.
When I asked a round of experts whether the nap schedule has to go out the window when a second child is in the picture, the answer was pretty much unanimous: No!
Before we get into the practical tips, we need to emphasize why it’s so important to put in the hard but worthy work of strategic scheduling.
“Sleep is essential for the well-being of children,” says Dr. Elizabeth Meade, a pediatric hospitalist at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. “There are direct correlations between inadequate sleep and problems with behavior, obesity, general health, development and neurocognition. Practicing good sleep hygiene with your kids from an early age will cement healthy habits and give them a huge advantage through adulthood.”
So when school resumes in the fall, how will you juggle the kids’ schedules while respecting the baby’s need for sleep as much as possible? You’re going to have to be flexible, but remember:
“Respect the naps,” says Dr. Maida Lynn Chen, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders Center at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “This means creating a defined opportunity for the baby to nap, and not just keeping your fingers crossed that 1) he/she falls asleep, and 2) it’s somewhere and sometime that you don’t need to wake them.” This might be in the crib, or it might be on the go (never let baby nap alone in a car).
Create a semblance of routine — from trying to set a couple of naps a day that are predictable and similar to consistency around the activities going on around babies during awake times.
All for one, one for all
Routine plays into a baby’s sleep in a big way. Chen encourages parents to create a semblance of routine — from trying to set a couple of naps a day that are predictable and similar to consistency around the activities going on around babies during awake times.
“Involve the baby in the school routine,” Chen says. “Get them dressed and ready to ‘go to school,’ then home for a nap after drop-off, another nap prior to pickup, then ready for afternoon activities, too,” just like your older child does, she says. “Don’t plan on having them nap through those activities. If you need to bring the baby, involve them! This gives them the cues to stay awake, and it helps to enforce that daily schedule.”
Remember that saying “It takes a village”? Consider asking someone to watch the sleeping baby at home — maybe while you’re picking up their child in addition to your older child, Chen suggests. And if you’re going to alter your baby’s nap, try an earlier nap rather than a later one, she recommends, as delaying it can make the baby overtired and therefore make it difficult to get baby to fall sleep.
Make up for lost time
Sometimes, you have to wake up the baby or skip nap. In those cases, think about the total amount of sleep, not just the particular windows of sleep; give the baby extra sleep at night, Chen says. “It might seem like a ridiculously early bedtime. But if sleep doesn’t happen during the day, then it needs to be extra prioritized and protected at nighttime.”
Finally, go into the school year with realistic expectations. “From a parent’s perspective, and perhaps with your pediatrician’s guidance, every parent needs to define how they view napping success or failure,” Chen says. Consider whether you need every nap to be at the same time and place, or whether you’re OK with being more flexible. Also think about the help you have available and your other concrete obligations during the day, she says.
All this hard work balancing sleep will benefit your baby, sure. But it can also be a sweet time with the older child.
“You might plan special one-on-one time with an older sibling while baby is napping — time for crafts, reading, playing together at home,” says Dr. Rachael Schuessler, a family medicine physician at The Polyclinic Northgate. “The older child might even enjoy helping mom or dad with chores. You could also encourage an older brother or sister to have an hour of ‘quiet time.’”
Finally, with all this talk about naps, nighttime sleep is important, too. Make sure you’re practicing good sleep hygiene at night, and that each kid is ultimately getting the sleep they need. Finally, be realistic about what to expect.
“Some days will be better and easier than others,” says Dr. Liana McCabe, a pediatrician at Virginia Mason University Village Medical Center in Seattle. “You may have a day when your kids sleep at the same time, and the next day your baby will be woken up by your school-age child’s tantrum. Some days you’ll get everything done on your to-do list, and other days you’ll get nothing done. As long as you have been a loving parent, you have succeeded!”